Zen On Dirt


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Coffee and Bikes and New Zealand

My little brother lives in a van named Yeti. It’s a 1996 (or 1993, depending on which “official” document you consult) Toyota pop-top that he calls his palace.

And really, it is. He’s figured out how to make a comfortable existence in it, how to park it for free, where to get nearby internet, which campground to get water from, and all the various other bits and pieces needed for #vanlife to go smoothly. (of course, we watch him search for socks for 15 minutes in the morning and overfill his grey water tank, but he’s learning)

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It’s been fun to see his version of nomad life, especially in a foreign country, where you simply have to be even more flexible than if you were in your home. Different customs, culture, and different hoops to jump through – their Warrant of Fitness, which is their Emissions testing equivalent also required the vehicle to be in good working order…windshield included. That one cost my brother $400.

Either way, I was really excited to see how he was doing “life” from his van.

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We woke up to rain on the tent, which didn’t really let up till nearly 9am, when we all emerged from our sleeping enclosures for coffee and breakfast. No one was in any particular hurry. Andras had the day off. Vanessa didn’t have to be in work until later. Kait had an hour to pedal to try to hitch over to Wanaka. Kurt had a 50 mile paved pedal to meet her. Scott and I, well, we’re on vacation and making the most of it.

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Once K&K headed off and Vanessa went off to work, the remaining three of us headed to Arrowtown for pies and coffee. Andras claimed that their bakery was famous in the area for meat pies and people from Queenstown often made the drive for them.

He wasn’t kidding. They were delish.

Then down the street to his favorite coffee shop for a second cup of coffee and cheese puffs. Cheese puffs are amazing.

Arrowtown is a pretty neat little place. Apparently there’s a pretty hopping nightlife, which I doubt we’ll have the chance to see since we tend to go to bed, in the light, at 9:30.

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From there, to Franktown for Andras to do laundry. This would have been a sub one hour stop, except that Andras mistook a washer for a dryer, and double washed his clothes. At least they’re clean?

Motivation to ride was a little hard to come by that late in the day, seeing that it wasn’t particularly warm or not windy, but somehow we rallied to do an in-and-out (out and back) on the Moonlight Trail near our campsite.

It was fairly to mostly spectacular.

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We were all pretty excited to have motivated.

We headed back to camp late in the evening. When it’s light till 10, 8pm is still broad daylight and a perfectly acceptable dinner time. It’s pretty weird, the high today was probably in the high 40’s, so definitely not summer-like, but the days are so stinking long…and only getting longer. It definitely sort of messes with my head.

This place is funny. The food is delicious. Internet is a pain in the ass. The trails are divine. And it looks like it’s finally going to stop raining! At least rain of the all-day every-day variety. I’m excited to see what’s to come.

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Approaches to bike travel + a day in Queenstown

We met a bike tourist back in Hanmer Springs, what, three weeks ago now? An Australian, she’s doing a version of my dream type of a trip: Ride bikes places, go backpacking and hiking. But she’s doing it with a lot of weight and sticking to roads, so I’d change that.

Either way, we ran into her in Queenstown yesterday, she’d just arrived after bussing in, having to abandon the road after some broken spokes. We talked a bit about our travels, where we’d been, what we’d seen, the advantages and disadvantages of using bikepacking bags versus traditional touring panniers, and route planning.

We came to NZ with very little plan of where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see. Maybe I like being surprised, maybe I like seeing what the Universe presents me with.

Andrea said that she always planned out her entire route before arriving because she hated the uncertainty of not knowing what was coming up.

I love learning about different peoples’ approaches to the game. Old Ghost Road via huts, ultra lightweight bikepacking, road touring with four panniers and a BOB trailer, riding and hiking – I love seeing what creative energies people put into travel by bike.

Anyhow, because we don’t travel with a plan, we end up having to take Town Days where we figure out our next steps. We were waiting on doing this to see what the prognosis on Kait’s knee was, but it’s looking like there’s not going to be a lot of bike riding in the immediate future, so it was time to move onto option Q, or maybe W by now.

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So the morning was spent at our new favorite coffee shop researching some tramping routes, followed by the first real load of laundry we’ve done since the hostel in Nelson. While handwashing is awesome…there’s something special about machine laundered clothing, and putting on clothes warm from the dryer while changing out of the Laundry Uniforms of rain gear. Then a visit to the Spark store to try to get Scott’s phone working (failed again, Verizon, in this single case, sucks), then a visit to the Department of Conservation to look at maps and buy a 6-month pass for their hut system. It’ll take six hut visits to pay it off, and we’ve already used one of those.

We started the pedal back up the hill shortly after 5 towards Andras’ secret campsite. Luckily, he picked us up halfway because soon after, the skies unleashed torrential rain. We all had a cozy dinner in the van and watched the rain come down. At some point of time, even closed doors and music couldn’t drown out the drumming of droplets.

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We took a well-timed break in the rain to crawl into tents and listened to the steady drizzle throughout the night. We awoke to the surrounding peaks coated in snow, snowline just a few hundred feet above us in the distant peaks.

It is spring, after all. And man oh man, it’s beautiful out this morning.


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Thanksgiving Riding and Navajo Tacos

This Thanksgiving, I have to express a large amount of thanks to my brother, who last February, packed his bags, and with a year-long work visa, came to New Zealand for a year.

Without him here, there’s no way that we’d be here eating meat pies.

So I’m grateful that he made the leap of faith that NZ would be awesome and invited us along for the ride.

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After working a double shift the day before, Andras met us at our coffeeshop looking, well, looking like shit. That’s what happens when you go on a working binge to make a bunch of money for the next leg of travel and work a 16 hour day.

I bought him a coffee and two meat pies to try to get him looking a little more human. It must have worked because we were off pedaling shortly afterwards, bound for the 7-Mile trail system down the lake.

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We were told that we’d probably be bored by these trails, but I loved them. Based on the giggles and hoots and hollers that I heard from Scott and Andras up ahead, they weren’t bored either.

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Bald eagle ducks and ducklings

It was a sunny and beautiful day, and we were finally out for a reasonable day ride with beautiful views of the lake – a glorious way to celebrate Thanksgiving.

We rolled back into town to pick up Kurt and Kait, who’d received the diagnosis of ‘most likely sprained with nothing torn’ on her knee, piled five people and five bikes into the back of Andras’ camper van, and headed up the hill to his top secret campsite for Thanksgiving dinner.

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Since turkey isn’t really something that is easily found around here, we decided to make Navajo tacos instead, which we thought was an appropriate substitute. Lamb, squash, beans, and salsa. It was great.

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Read the description. Seriously.

The evening weather even had a few fine spells that allowed us to hang out outside, and when the rain really started to come down, we moved inside the van. #vanlife is awesome.

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I was feeling pretty lucky to be spending time in the shadow of the Remarkable Mountains, with good friends and even some family, enjoying the finer things in life. Good food, good wine, good beer, and for a few minutes, even a roof over my head.

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Doing Stupid on Ben Lemond Peak

Given what I know now, the activities of yesterday might have not been the greatest of great ideas.

No, that’s not true. It was totally worth it. It just happens that right now I’m hobbling around with the worst case of DOMS that I’ve had since my first Big Ditch R2R2R with Megan back in April.

But there are big mountains here. And for me, the best way to explore big mountains is on foot. I just haven’t really been exploring enough on foot to be prepared to do a lot of vert at a moments notice.

After a morning of realizing that the Queenstown library didn’t have unlimited internet (only 30 minutes per device) which led to coffee and pastries at a coffee shop that did have free unlimited internet (which I know, technically isn’t free because we had to buy something, but at least this way we got internet AND coffee!), I decided to undertake a 15 mile run around a smaller mountain. The entire morning had been cloudy and rainy, and while I really wanted to get up Ben Lemond mountain, per recommendation from the mountain biker we met on the Old Ghost Road, I didn’t want to climb a giant peak only to see clouds. It would have to wait for better weather.

I started up from the base of the gondola, very quickly discovering that the trails in Queenstown weren’t any less steep than any of the other trails in New Zealand. I made it to the top of the gondola without too much issue and proceeded to enjoy the people watching while I tried to find the continuation of my trail.

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It was a funny combination of DH bike riders, sightseeing tourists, and alpine slide/go cart riders.

It felt good to be back in the woods again, and soon I was out from the trees.

Then the low clouds started to clear, and I started getting glimpses of Ben Lemond Peak. Could it be? Could the clouds clear enough for a view?

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They did! They did! By the time I got to the saddle, I had the confidence that I’d be able to see something from the top, so up I went. Two Kea birds and a handful of people were already at the top. The Keas, mountain parrots, are known for loving to get into peoples’ stuff. Think Gray Jays of the West…but bigger.

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And apparently they like to eat rubber off of tires and the leather off of seats. I’ve heard stories of one bird distracting a group by posing, and the other bird getting into cookies.

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I kept my food close on my back.

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Then it was time to go down. It dropped 5,000 feet in five miles. That’s the vertical of the south rim of the Big Ditch in two less miles. I didn’t really realize how far I had gone up. I did, near the end, realize that my legs were getting solidly tired.

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Whoops?

When I woke up in the middle of the night and flexed my quads, I had to groan. Really, did I do such a great job of being stupid?

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Apparently I did, but it was totally worth the views from the top.


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Queenstown!

New Zealand is actually a big island. I only know this because it took us two days of bussing to get from the north of the South Island to somewhere in the middle of it.

We woke up early from our river-side campsite outside of the township of Franz Joseph to a dry tent. The only time we’ve woken up to a dry tent in New Zealand was when we’ve gotten a room in a hostel and laid the tent out to dry, inside, overnight.

Dew-free mornings are rare around here. We packed up quickly and made our way into town where we bought quite possibly the biggest ‘bacon and egg bun’ I’ve ever seen. Think two giant slices of roll, a massive amount of eggs, Canadian bacon, and hash browns. Giant. The key to less expensive breakfast here is to buy items from the pre-made food case. This was our best find so far, and in a tourist town!

Getting on the bus was a bit of an ordeal with an excessively grumpy bus driver. I think the exact words when he saw us were: Four bikes? Bloody hell.

This was followed by a solid rant about not allowing that many bikes on the buses this time of year, and then he threatened to leave us behind if we couldn’t fit all four bikes into the tiny cleaning compartment of the bus. We negotiated three bikes plus our bags in there as long as we could put the fourth bike into the regular luggage bay.

He was definitely a Grump-a-Snuff-a-Luffogous.

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Luckily, we only had him as our driver for the first half. The second half, he was replaced by a Jack Nicholson from The Shining (think REDRUM REDRUM) look-a-like, who was endlessly entertaining and informed us about a lot of what we were looking at.

It ended up being a fairly long drive, mostly because, as a tourist bus, it liked to stop places. We stopped at Fox Glacier (which involved a U-turn because Mr Grumpy forgot someone), a Salmon hatchery that had a cafe (Grumpy got a free lunch), the town of Haast, Thunder Creek where we got our new driver, a cafe where the new driver got free lunch, a roadside stop for photos of a lake, Wanaka, a fruit stand (where the driver got free fruit), and then finally Queenstown.

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It was almost epic.

Once in Queenstown, we assembled the bikes and made our way up to the nearest hostel that had space for tents. The road was so steep, all except for Kurt had to hike it, and Kurt only rode it for the experience of riding something that ridiculously steep.

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Scott and I quickly got the tent set up and headed down to Pier 19, the place of employment of my younger brother. Between getting drinks and ordering fish and chips, I did a quality Big Sister job of embarrassing him. I’m pretty stinking proud of him for picking up his life and moving down here. I’m looking forward to more time with him while we’re here.

Queenstown looks amazing. I can’t wait to explore.


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Tourist Buses on the Coast: Pancake rocks, oceans, fry bread, and glaciers

There’s sometimes a debate going on in my head – What’s the best way to see a place? One could argue that the slower the pace, the more detail you see. You see more detail from a car than an airplane, more from a bike than a car, more from rollerblade than a bike, more from walking than rollerblades.

But, at the same time, when you can cover more distance efficiently, you get to see more places. The inbetweens are in less detail, but maybe the “highlights” are worth it.

I have no answer. I doubt I’ll ever have a comprehensive General Theory of Seeing Places the Best Way Possible. But I’ll keep trying.

Since Kurt and Kaitlyn were on a tighter timeline than us and really wanted to see Queenstown, the decision was made to hop on buses to make that desire happen. Unfortunately, for fortunately, it involved a two-day bus ride.

And we had to get to Westport, which was a solid 30 miles away from Seddonville, home of the greatest Holiday Campground that we’d found so far. And we had to get there in time to buy some food, disassemble the bikes to some level, and find the bus stop.

The 6am alarm clock hurt.

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Kait, with a still swollen and painful knee, had decided to hitchhike. Kurt was going to try as well. So Scott and I set off towards the coast.

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It was beautiful! Neither of us are really ocean people, but when we get to visit, we’re in awe of it. So. Much. Water. So much power in the waves crashing to shore! We were happy little bikepackers riding along the pavement – fueled by no winds and empty roads.

Kurt ended up catching us with 16km to go and we rolled the threesome into Westport where we met up with Kait and went immediately to the nearest cafe for second breakfast. I love the eggs here, the yokes are amazingly orange. And delicious.

Then onto the bus for the long drive down to Franz Joseph Glacier.

Luckily, one of the scheduled stops for the bus was at the Pancake Rocks, a unique rock formation on the coast that, during violent high-tide seas, causes massive blowholes of water to spout up. The rocks themselves, layered limestone, were pretty cool too, and even with calm seas and low tides, the water moving in and out was impressive. Nature is neat.

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The next stop the bus made was at Hakatika, and with a 45 minute break, we completely forgot to eat lunch and headed straight for the beach. Well, after a stop at a food truck/trailer selling Langos, which is Hungarian fry bread. I couldn’t resist a garlic one and ate it while dancing in the waves.

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Then back on the bus for one last push to Franz Joseph, where we got dropped off at the Backpackers, New Zealandese for hostel. We opted out of the hostel, but met a touring family from France who were staying there. The couple had a 10 year old boy on a bike of his own, and a girl who rode shotgun on a cargo-ish bike piloted by here dad. They’d spent 3 months in South America, were doing a month in NZ, and were then headed to Asia for a year of total traveling. How rad.

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We rolled out of town eventually, after using the town toilets that had buttons to open and close the door, would open the door after you spent 10 minutes in there (pooping on a timer!) and wouldn’t flush the toilet until you washed your hands. And they played soothing music while you were using the toilet. It was amazing.

We finished the day up with a ride/hike up to the Franz Joseph glacier viewpoint. The amount that it has retreated in the past 6 years is amazing. And sad. The world is a changing.

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In the end, we didn’t get to see the coast line in as much detail as we would have had we pedaled it, but, we got to see the Pancake Rocks and the glacier, and tomorrow I get to see my brother in Queenstown, so that’s pretty rad. And if we really wanted to, we could pedal back north this way…but only if the weather forecast is for ‘freshening southerlies.’ Headwinds suck.


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Bum knees…on the Old Ghost Road

The Old Ghost Road is an 85 km track built with bike riders in mind. With 5 huts on it, the idea is that you can travel with just food and a sleeping bag (super light) and ride the route in 3-4 days. Of course, that’s not what we did, but in theory…NZ has a history of long tramping tracks, I think this was the first one purpose built for bikes.

I guess I find this neat because the idea of building long-distance trails for bikes in the USA hasn’t really caught on. We, as the bikepacking community, have found ourselves either piecing together bits of dirt road a al Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, or picking our way through trails designed for hiking, which happen to be somewhere on the range of heinous to awesome to take bikes on, a al Colorado Trail, Arizona Trail, Continental Divide Trail. But imagine the best part of any of those trails, the parts that were designed on some level by mountain bikers, and create an entire trail like that.

That’s the Old Ghost Road.

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We woke up to a complete fog-out. 50 feet visibility? Fog droplets falling on our tent. Dang. We had such promise of fine spells last night. Still, the show must go on, so we cooked breakfast from the tent, did all of our changing in the tent, packed up our bags in the tent, and when finally the tent needed to be packed, then we finally got up.

We set off into the fog bundled up completely, just ahead of an other cyclist who’d come up from the hut below us on a day ride. He was in shorts and short sleeves.

Us? We looked like Michelin Men.

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The trail contoured beautifully along a cliff side, very reminiscent of the Inner Canyons on the Arizona Trail. Well thought out trail, amazing construction.

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It didn’t take long to get to the Ghost Lake Hut, perched high above, well, high above pretty much everything. The huts along the route are on a reservation system and seem to be mostly booked most nights. People here are stoked on the Old Ghost Road.

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From the hut, it was time to go down. The trail was rated 4-5, which basically meant high intermediate to advanced. I’m pretty happy on 3 trails, 4 provides plenty of challenge. I don’t like 5.

There were plenty of places were one could launch themselves off of the side of the hill into steep shrubbery. Unfortunately, Kait decided to capitalize on one of these opportunities and thus started the massive swelling of her knee.

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As of this writing, her knee is about the size of a small Weka bird, which is the size of a small T-Rex, which it resembles.

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Shit.

We continued down, because with nearly another 50 km to go, we didn’t really have much of an option.

Part of the trail involved a 30 meter (nearly a 100 foot) vertical descent on a staircase.

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It was…steep? Made me really glad we’d listened to the recommended direction to ride the route, because it would have been a massive undertaking to get loaded bikes up the stairs.

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After the stairs, the trail mellowed out to Grade 3-4, and some fun downhill cruising ensued down to the next hut, which we deemed worthy of our lunch and coffee break. Observation of Kait’s rapidly swelling knee were not good.

The trail continued up to Solemn Saddle, an 1,100 ft climb. Kait, pedaling with one leg, dropped us all. I think I’m going to bestow the trail name of Soul Crusher upon her.

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Unfortunately, trail conditions went downhill from there. Not in the ‘Yay, fun! Let’s go downhill’ manner, but in the sense that it turned into miserable mud for miles on end. We now understood the overly engineered trail that we’d been riding on – as anything not covered in logs and crushed rock turned into a muddy disaster mess.

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While Kait could pedal, walking looked incredibly painful. Especially in the mud. Suck.

Progress was slow until we ran into a trail crew…who’d stopped working because their rock crusher was broken. They assured us that the final 20 km of trail was better…as did the naked guy who was taking an outdoor shower at the final hut on the route.

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The trail did improve and rolled along, cut out of the size of cliff above a giant river with massive rapids. The km distance signs counted up, one by one, far faster than miles signs would have. Comforting, and encouraging.

Then finally, the end of the Old Ghost Road.

Victorious. Yet bummed.

We made our way over to the Seddonville, know as a one commercial establishment town. Luckily, that establishment acts as a bar, restaurant, and campground host. We utilized all three services and are put up in an old school converted into holiday park. It’s quite possibly the most hilarious place we’ve been so far. Fast internet, no one else here, a lovely indoor space to escape the sand flys. And rural as all get out – we can’t understand a word anyone says around here.

Tomorrow, we pedal 30 miles to Westport where we’ll hop on a bus and head south. And hope real hard that Kait’s knee looks better in the morning.